Student Life Q&A with the Chancellor, 2024

| Editor-in-Chief

(Bri Nitsberg | Student Life)

Washington University Chancellor Andrew Martin sat down for an interview with Student Life on March 5, nearly a year after his last Q&A in April 2023. Martin spoke about recent student activism on campus, the state of the endowment, the University’s recent and future property purchases, and where he buys his glasses. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Student Life: How would you describe the past academic year in one word? 

Andrew Martin: Complicated. 

SL: Can you expand on that at all? 

AM: This academic year has put a great deal of stress on so many members of our community. I think the most salient issue has to do with the tragic events of October 7th and the aftermath, which has affected so many members of this community in so many different ways and at times, sort of pitted members of the community against one another, or at least [created] the perception that members of our community are pitted against one another. And that’s made for a really complicated time.

SL: You’ve taken a stance on some instances of labeling some speech as hateful, [specifically] saying that ‘to the river to the sea’ was ‘well beneath the dignity of every member of our community.’ How do you decide when to weigh in on speech on campus?

AM: In this particular case, this was language that was being used on our campus that was deeply hurtful and intimidating to some members of our community. And in that particular blog post, in partnership with the chairman of the board, we decided that we’re not banning that phrase, but we’re calling it what it is, which is something that was deeply, deeply troubling and offensive to many members of our community. 

SL: And sort of on the same topic, there’s an unofficial WashU group known as Resist WashU that has been pretty persistently calling for the University to divest or unaffiliate with Boeing due to claims about the company supplying missiles to Israel. What is your response to this call? And would this divestment or unaffiliation ever happen?

AM: No. 

SL: Do you have a particular response to this call and why [unaffliation] wouldn’t happen? 

AM: No. 

SL: There have also been calls from [student] groups to divest from fossil fuels. Last year, you said that the University does not positively or negatively screen investments, meaning look at ESG ratings. Why does the University not look at ESG ratings? 

AM: I certainly appreciate the enthusiasm of some members of the community who are advocating for divestment from fossil fuels. We’ve made the decision that the purpose of the endowment is to generate as much return as possible. We do so in a socially responsible way. That’s all detailed in our annual report and available on the endowment website. 

Why do we care about endowment return? Because endowment return is our biggest source of funds for scholarships, and funds our faculty research, and so that’s why we’ve made that decision. 

SL: Speaking of the endowment, we received communication this year that the endowment had a second year of negative returns. So how does the negative return impact University spending? 

AM: The endowment payout isn’t based on just one year of performance. It’s smoothed over a five-year time period. 

For the last two years, the amount of the endowment payout has gone flat. What the implication of that is, is for example, with regard to financial aid, the amount of financial aid is not growing at the same rate that our tuition cost is growing. And so all else equal, that means there’s less money available for financial aid. Endowment going down — bad. Endowment going up —  good. 

SL: Talking about tuition increase, we received notice on February 1 that [tuition] increased by 4.5%, which has been the largest increase in the past decade. What spurred this change and how are increases calculated? 

AM:  When we look at our tuition number, there’s lots of things that we’re looking at, including the cost of education. Of course, almost our entire cost of education has to do with our personnel. In order to be able to keep and retain the best talent both on our faculty and staff, we’ve had to be very aggressive in terms of compensation, that’s our largest expense by far. 

We also look at where we are in the market, and we look not just at the tuition number, but also the student fees and the housing and dining as well. 

SL: Why has it increased more this year as compared to the past decade, is there a specific reasoning behind that? 

AM: Inflation. 

SL: I did notice that inflation in 2022 was around 8% and dropped drastically this year. 

AM: So, yes, and when inflation was 8%, we didn’t increase tuition 8%. 

SL:  The University announced the implementation of a no loan program to exclude federal loans starting next year for undergraduates. Can you expand [on] how the University is funding this initiative? 

AM: We’re funding this initiative in three different ways. One is from endowment dedicated to financial aid. I spend a significant amount of my time out raising money, including for scholarship. Second is through expendable gifts. We have individuals who are going to give us money and rather than say, ‘let’s put this in an endowment to fund a scholarship for forever,’ [they say] ‘let me give you the money and you spend it next year for scholarship.’ And the third is through operations. 

SL: There’s consistently been a rumor on campus that WashU has plans to buy Fontbonne. To date, are there any plans or talk of plans of doing that?

AM: No. 

SL: The St. Louis Business Journal reported in 2023, that WashU does have multimillion dollar plans to buy land from Concordia Seminary. Can you give an update on the timeline of this project? 

AM: We have a contract to buy the western half of the Concordia Seminary property, which is just to the south of where Fontebonne is. We are waiting now for the final approval from the city of Clayton. We are hopeful that that approval comes quickly, like within the next month. And then we will build out this athletic campus that we are planning to build down there. 

The Chancellor’s Office clarified that Concordia is deeding the University acreage on the western part of the campus for 80 years. 

SL: WashU has acquired a couple new properties in the past year, including a vacant lot on Delmar and Pin-Up Bowl, as well as a few others on the Loop. What spurred the decision to buy these and what is the University planning to do with them? 

AM: What spurred the University to buy these is that there was a seller who was interested in divesting from these properties, and we are very committed to preserving the culture and the character of the Delmar Loop. And if you were to walk down the blocks today, you would not know anything is different because nothing is different. The idea is really to continue to operate these spaces as businesses and make sure that the Loop is a vibrant, safe, healthy place for the University community.

SL: And then about vacant [lot]. What is the plan for that? 

AM: Oh, yes, the old Church’s Chicken lot. We don’t have any plans to develop it right away. If there’s a brilliant developer who wants to do something that’s in harmony with the Loop, and it’s something that the neighbors would like, we’d be happy to have a conversation but as we sit here today, we don’t have any active plans to develop that site.

SL: A really loud voice recently has been the MeToo WashU group and a couple others, calling attention to allegations against Philip Dyvbig, Nobel Prize winner. I know you’re not able to comment on specific cases, but I was hoping you’d be able to shed light on University processes when such accusations are made and published in news sources.

AM:  So you’re correct. I won’t comment about any particular case. When an accusation is made, if it comes from an individual, we will refer that individual to our Title IX office who will conduct an investigation. If there are allegations and an individual isn’t willing to come forward to the Title IX office, the University can step in and be a complainant to the Title IX office — and that’s certainly happened in the past. Once that investigation is over, the results of that investigation are turned over to the responsible party, which is typically going to be a dean, [or] maybe a manager for a staff member. For a student, it would be someone in Student Conduct. And then any sort of sanction, punishment or whatever would flow from there. 

SL: Affirmative Action was outlawed last June by the Supreme Court, meaning that the class of 2028 is going to be the first class to be admitted to Washington University without it. How will the University continue its promise to uphold diversity on campus? 

AM: The fact that we can no longer use race in terms of University admissions doesn’t diminish our commitment to diversity, and we’ve been very clear about that and communicated about that. The work that we’re doing today is in two different areas. So one has to do with how we recruit students. We have added resources and added individuals to [the admissions] team to get out there and to go try to find talent wherever talent resides. Some folks that are focused on more urban schools [and] we set up a new program last year to look for talented rural students.

The other place we’re working in is once students are here. We’re not backing away from all the different types of institutions that support students from all different backgrounds. I think about the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, which is part of Student Affairs, I think about the Taylor Family Center for Student Success. These are programs that are in place to help a diverse student body — help every one of those students live up to their full potential — and we’re not backing away from those commitments whatsoever. 

SL: In the past, Washington University has actually hosted some presidential debates. Why did the University not apply to be a host this year? 

AM: One of the first decisions I made — I think I actually made it back in 2018, before I even started as chancellor — [was that] we were not going to put in an application for the 2020 presidential debate. And the rationale for that was really straightforward. It was very, very expensive, well, north of $10 million, to host the debate, and I decided that there were many more important things that we could spend that money on. As we sit here today, it’s unclear whether there’s even going to be presidential debates.

SL: In the next year, what challenges do you see coming to the University? 

AM: This is a very volatile time in the global political economy. There’s war in the Middle East. There’s war in Europe. We’re facing down a very contentious presidential election here in the United States. And I think that all of that is going to make things — using a hockey term — a little chippy over the next nine or 10 months. There’s gonna be a lot of things happening in the world, and a lot of things that are going to cause a great deal of stress and pain and anxiety for lots of members of our community. And that’s going to be difficult.

SL: I have a couple of questions that I’m going to ask quickly and I want you to answer without thinking too much. What are you reading right now? 

AM: The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism. 

SL: What’s your favorite restaurant on the Loop? 

AM: Turmeric

SL: Where do you get your glasses? 

AM: Erkers. The closest one is in the Galleria, but I go to the one in Ladue because they have a bigger showroom and more round glasses to choose from. 

SL: How many pairs of red shoes do you own? 

AM: Probably four. 

SL: If you had to live in one WashU dorm, which one would you choose? 

AM: Lee-Beau. I go old school.

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